Gary Toth following up on his reflections on the USDOT webinar, Forum on Livability.
As a career transportation geek, I found it particularly encouraging to hear talk about a new transportation planning process attached to performance measures which go beyond the overused and myopic focus solely on auto oriented benchmarks such as pavement quality, bridge inspections and level of service (congestion). To be clear, I am not saying it is bad to keep our bridges standing and safe and the roads that I use to travel to Vermont, Pennsylvania and Delaware from getting overclogged with traffic. Keep it up DOTs! However, we the public allow government to tax us because we want our lives improved and our agencies responsive. Having worked in the state DOT world for 34 years, I can tell you that most DOT insiders have lost track of that concept – and the public has noticed. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a major part of the reason why states and federal politicians will no longer vote for increased gas taxes. Do we transportation professionals need to be hit in the head with a rock to figure this out?

USDOT gets this, as evidenced by last months webinar on Livability. So what would a more robust, 21st Century planning process look like?

For starters, it would be one which addresses environmental, energy, housing, economic, land use and development, and equity policies. There are ample models out there within some of the more progressive Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), which are the regional planning organizations mandated by federal transportation legislation. For instance, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Council (DVRPC) has generated a number of Scenario Performance Measures including amount of land development, average annual household transportation expenses, vehicle miles traveled and relationship within planning areas of jobs to housing. California’s State Bill 375 mandates Blueprint planning, which – like the DVRPC model — measures success of transportation planning against benchmarks that matter to the average citizen in every day life: how much does transportation cost eat into their budgets; is the regional planning helping folks to find affordable housing; does the transportation network help economize personal time or it is forcing them to drive around everywhere to bring kids to school, get a quart of milk, to take mom to the doctor?

These kinds of people based performance measures must count for as much (if not more) than how smooth the pavement is. Examples like DVRPC and California’s SB 375 must become the standard, not the remarkable case study.

This robust and accountable planning process must then be used to drive transportation investments. Sounds like a no brainer, right? Yet, the American public would be disillusioned to find out how much mismatch there is between long range plans and how state DOTs actually invest the transportation dollars that we provide to them. Federal law requires only that the investment plans (Transportation Improvement Plans or TIP for short) be “consistent” with metro or long range transportation plans. “Consistent” has become a term of art and is subject to strong-arming by the DOTs, which come equipped with bridge, pavement and congestion performance measures: DOTs can threaten to move money from one MPO to another if they don’t toe the DOT line. Politics also plays a big role in distorting the planning process. A majority of MPO voting members are elected officials who feel compelled to press for investment in the sub region that they represent. Fix it first projects often give way to huge investments in freeways or roadway widening. These have much more political visibility, satisfy economic interests in opening up new land for sprawling development or to satisfy the complaints of voters sitting in traffic. The end product barely resembles the plan.

Politicians will be politicians, and DOTs are currently transportation focused, so if we perpetuate a system that allows them to use muscle to skew the investment in their favor, then they are almost compelled to do so. Who wants to be the senator who has to go home to his/her district and explain to their constituents that they have to continue to sit in congestion or drive over a shaky bridge because the Senator was more worried about global warming?

To fix this, the next transportation bill passed by Congress must mandate that federal funds cannot be approved for use on any individual project unless that project was contained and recommended within a long range plan and investment program. Those plans and program need to be based on statewide, regional and/or corridor visioning that were done using community, place and environmental based performance measures as well as transportation measures. In context sensitive solutions parlance – all concepts, projects and investment funded with federal dollars should be sensitive to all contexts, not just the transportation context. And, this all needs to be done with full and meaningful participation of all stakeholders, starting with the public, but including private developers, institutions and relevant non profits. When those stakeholders feel like the transportation insiders have allowed them to be part of the team, then those stakeholders will vote to raise money for the team’s game plan.

The next bill must also require that all investments and plans be based on integrated transportation and land use (T/LU) forecasting models. This will be expensive for sure, but states like California and Oregon have already learned that the return on investment is almost immeasurable. For instance, T/LU modeling helped Oregon reconsider a potential several billion dollar investment in freeways in Eastern Oregon, when the modeling revealed that the planned freeways would never perform as desired. T/LU modeling helped California understand that a politically driven call for a new freeway to Modesto — parallel to I-580 – would have the opposite effect on improving economics than conventional transportation only based logic suggested. Instead, T/LU modeling revealed a freight only toll road was determined to be the right investment. With funding for transportation becoming ever more scarce, our nation cannot afford to rely on outdated conventional transportation models institutionalized in response to the 1962 Federal Aid Highway Act. 21st Century investments require 21st Century models that evaluate decisions based not only on travel time savings but which also predict the induced economic growth based on economic, social and environmental realities. To help eliminate the political resistance created by the major expense of these models, the next National Transportation Bill should provide funding and resources for T/LU modeling.

To enforce the link between the investment program and the long range blueprint planning, no project be allowed to pass from one project delivery step to another without a formal declaration by the DOT/MPO that the investment “graduated” from a integrated and collaborative long range plan. For highway investments, the Federal Highway Administrati

on (FHWA) could easily enforce this. FHWA is currently required to approve requests for use of federal transportation funds at each project delivery stage, specifically inclusion of the project in a Unified Planning Work Program; start and completion of the environmental process (specified by the National Environmental Policy Act – NEPA for short); start of final design; start of property acquisition (called right of way); and start of construction.

These ideas will be resisted by most of the state DOTs. Even the “progressive” ones will not like the idea of relinquishing this much control of the investment process. AASHTO will follow their lead, even though their leadership gets the value of this. Learning from the current Health Care debate, opponents will portray this as more intrusion of the federal government into our local rights.

But as one early patriot once said, we either hang together or we hang separately. The current system allows if not fosters an “every man for themselves” approach. Individual objectives are maximized while collective objectives fall by the wayside. Each player in the current game will continue to protect their piece of a shrinking pie because that is how they win in the current game. The next bill must change the rules of the game such that individual battles cannot be one while the “war” is lost. 21st Century transportation must induce players to address broad societal issues that threaten the very future of our prosperity while still allowing officials to proudly cut the ribbon on a rehabilitated bridge.

USDOT must provide the leadership to help America to work together on this. Participants in last month’s webinar were encouraged, yet skeptical. We have been promised reform many times before by incoming administrations, which reforms dissipate in the face on entrenched self interest. The upcoming attempts at transportation reform will face monumental resistance from entrenched interests who cry state’s rights; people are more important than frogs; American’s won’t give up their cars; Washington’s liberals are trying to make us all live like them. Those of us who know better need to line up behind USDOT and give them the cover and the courage to continue to move forward. Otherwise early skepticism will grow into widespread loss of faith: “we heard your commercial, now where’s the beef?”

Gary’s next post will drill down more into the actual project delivery process and talk about how corridor planning and consideration of environmental issues during planning can help accomplish these goals.